Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement

Published on Dissident Voice, an interview with author/activist Nancy Kurshan, by Angola 3 News, February 15, 2013.

… In this interview, Nancy Kurshan discusses her new book and covers a variety of topics, including the growth of solitary confinement and its relation to mass incarceration, the connection between US militarism abroad and domestic prisons, concluding with the lessons that today’s human rights activists can learn from the history of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown. 

Angola 3 News: Your new book chronicles fifteen years of organizing against control unit prisons, from 1985-2000. Can you begin the interview by explaining exactly what a control unit prison is?

  • Nancy Kurshan: There are at least 2 ways to answer that question. One is to describe the daily workings. The other is to elucidate the underlying dynamics.
  • There are variations from prison to prison, but generally speaking, a control unit prison is one in which every prisoner is locked away in their own individual box about 23 hours a day under conditions of severe sensory deprivation. The prisoner eats, sleeps and defecates in the windowless cell. Meals come through a slot in the door. In some cases the prisoner may be out of the cell a couple of times a week for exercise, but in other circumstances the exercise area is even more limited and is attached to the cell itself. Most control unit prisons have little access to education or any recreational outlets.
  • Usually, control units severely restrict the prisoner’s connection not just with other prisoners, but with family and friends in the outside world. At Marion, only family members could visit, upon approval, and only for a small number of visits per month. The amount of time allowed per visit was severely restricted, and there was no privacy whatsoever and no contact permitted between prisoner and visitor. Visiting took place over a plexiglass wall and through telephones. Guards were always within earshot. The prisoner had to be searched before and after, sometimes cavity searched. The visitor had to undergo a body search as well. The prisoners were brought to the visit in shackles.
  • Regarding the underlying dynamics, the intent is to make the prisoner feel that his or her life is completely out of control. That is not an unintended consequence.  The purpose of the control unit is to make the person feel helpless, powerless and completely dependent upon the prison authorities. The intent is to strip the individual of any agency, any ability to direct his or her own life. A control unit institutionalizes solitary confinement as a way of exerting full control over as much of the prisoner’s life as possible.
  • There is no pretense that this is a temporary affair. Instead it is long-term, severe behavior modification, and it is the most vile, mind & spirit-deforming use of solitary confinement. Control units represent the darkest side of behavior modification. Inside a control unit, the prisoner usually has no idea how long he or she will be there. It is an indeterminate sentence, and usually the rules or guidelines for exiting are unclear at best and impossible to comprehend at worst. It is a hell without any apparent end.
  • Being sent to a control unit prison is tantamount to torture, as acknowledged by many human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Prisoners are held under conditions that today are not considered ‘humane’ even for animals. They are an extreme abuse of state power.
  • The existence of the control unit also functions to control other prisoners who are in the general population. This is as important to the system as the impact on those actually in the control unit. The fear of imprisonment in this worst of all prisons is meant to scare all prisoners into tolerating intolerable conditions. The word ‘Marion’ was meant to strike cold fear into the hearts of prisoners throughout the federal prison system.

A3N: You write that “not only did federal control unit prisons proliferate, but now virtually every state system in the country is capped off by a control unit. Whether they are called Control Units, Supermax, SHU (Secure Housing Unit), ADX (Administrative Maximum Facility), a skunk by any other name still stinks.” Can you tell us more about how control unit prisons and solitary confinement in US prisons evolved since the mid-1980s when you began your work?

  • NK:  When we began our work, Marion was the only control unit prison in the federal system, and there were none in the state systems. At the outset, the prison bureaucrats proclaimed that the control unit would allow the rest of the system to run more freely since it would remove the ‘bad apples’ from the system and concentrate them in the control unit. We countered that argument by predicting that the control unit would serve as an anchor, dragging the whole system in a more repressive direction.
  • Activists were able to accomplish a significant victory early on. The strength of the women political prisoners incarcerated in the Lexington Control Unit, along with a mass national and international campaign in concert with legal action, forced the Feds to close the Lexington Control Unit for Women in 1988 just two years after it opened.
  • But over the years, many state ‘prisoncrats’ came to Marion to see the control unit. As the years went on, most states built control units or modified existing institutions to accommodate control units. And, of course, the feds, in response to our criticisms of Marion, claimed that the problem with Marion was that it was not built to be a control unit. So they built a bigger and ‘better’ control unit in Florence, Colorado. This demonstrates that unless the ideology changes, they will respond to criticism by morphing one way or another, but never really moving in a progressive direction.
  • Long term solitary confinement has become a pillar of their ‘correctional’ policy. However, it seems that two serious challenges have developed. First, this form of imprisonment is expensive and our society is running out of money, thanks in part to our bloated military agenda.
  • Secondly, in some places like California, prisoners have stood up in the thousands and said: “We won’t take it no more.” There have been hunger strikes of 6,000 or more prisoners and support on the outside that has helped give voice to their grievances (read coverage of the strike by Angola 3 News: 1,2,3). In response to hunger strikers at Pelican Bay, the New York Times in an editorial on August 1, 2011 entitled “Cruel Isolation,” lamented that “For many decades, the civilized world has recognized prolonged isolation of prisoners in cruel conditions to be inhumane, even torture. The Geneva Convention forbids it. Even at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where prisoners were sexually humiliated and physically abused systematically and with official sanction, the jailers had to get permission of their commanding general to keep someone in isolation for more than 30 days.”
  • Prisoners around the country are attempting to cast light on the situation, but they can only do so much from inside. And let’s face it, despite Albert Hunt’s article in the NY Times on Nov. 20, 2011 entitled “A Country of Inmates, that “With just a little more than 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for a quarter of the planet’s prisoners and has more inmates than the leading 35 European countries combined,” this situation is not even on the national agenda. I listened to Obama’s State of the Union speech last night, and nowhere did I hear a mention of the fact that we are a country of inmates, disproportionately Black and Hispanic.
  • Unfortunately, economic concerns always trump the moral. The Governor of Illinois recently announced the closing of Tamms Prison, the state’s control unit prison that we fought so hard against in the 1990s. On the heels of that decision, they have also announced that an Illinois prison that has been vacant, will now be sold to the feds, and part of it will be a new control unit prison. The same Senator Dick Durbin who recently held hearings to look into solitary confinement on June 19, 2012 has heralded this deal, as it will bring more jobs to the community of Thomson where unemployment is high. The employment of some seems always to trump the concern about human rights for others. (see the last question for more about Durbin).

A3N: How has the rise of solitary confinement and control unit prisons related to the mass incarceration policies and escalated criminalization of poverty that began in the 1970s, and have now given the US the highest incarceration rate and more total prisoners than literally any other country?

  • NK: Both come out of a profoundly racist ideology that blames the victim and refuses to deal with the structural challenges and fault lines of our society. We have never really dealt with the legacy of slavery. We have not dealt with the immigration challenge. We have not dealt with the lack of jobs at a living wage. Rather we have met the challenge of a huge under-reported unemployment problem with an imprisonment binge.
  • The binge does not affect all sectors of the population equally. No, the prisons are overflowing disproportionately with Black and Latino prisoners. Albert Hunt wrote in “A Country of Inmates” that “more than 60 percent of the United States’ prisoners are black or Hispanic, though these groups comprise less than 30 percent of the population.” One in nine black children has a parent in jail!
  • Our prisons have no real plans for ‘rehabilitation.’ That would require a restructuring of society, a real jobs and education program — one that we need now more than ever but that is not on the horizon. In fact, the jobs program that we do have has been building more prisons located long distances from the urban centers that most prisoners call home and offer jobs to a totally different sector of the population. The imprisonment binge has served to get largely young men of color off the streets, warehousing them to prevent any disruption that might come from millions of unemployed men of color out on the pavement.
  • In the 1960s there was mass unrest in this country with urban centers going up in flames. We can trace the connection between that and the beginning of massive incarceration.
  • Of course, Black people have also historically led the way in challenging injustice, which makes them a force to reckon with. The Attica prison struggle of 1971 was a watershed where prisoners stood up and said: “We are men. We will not be treated like beasts.” When the tear gas and bullets cleared, men were dead. Control units try to prevent that kind of camaraderie and resistance from developing. This makes it all the more amazing that prisoners at Pelican Bay could organize a massive hunger strike.
  • In 1975 the right-wing ideologue and Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington wrote The Crisis of Democracy, a report for the Trilateral Commission, in which he argued that there was too much democracy and things needed to change. Well, things have changed. And now the leading ‘democracy’ in the world is also the largest incarceration nation … //

… (full interview text).

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